Defenses Still Weak

Experts: DDoS attacks remain serious threat to Web sites.

Mafiaboy, the canadian teenager accused of launching DDoS attacks against a septet of the Internets most popular sites last year, pleaded guilty last week to 56 of the 66 charges against him—just before his trial was set to start in Montreal.

While the action brought to a close one chapter in the distributed-denial-of-service saga of 2000, a year in which seven leading sites were hacked, another more disturbing chapter remains open: Many of the same sites are still virtually powerless to stop such attacks.

The early February 2000 strikes— hitting Inc., Inc.,, eBay Inc.,, Yahoo Inc. and ZDNet—employed an army of zombie computers across the Internet to flood the Web servers with thousands of simultaneous requests for service, forcing them to shut down for several hours. Despite vendors efforts to prevent attacks, security experts say theres still no solution that can fully protect a site from a DDoS attack, a fact not lost on the sites hit last year.

"Theres still a vulnerability to this on every site," said Alan Phillips, who was CIO of ZDNet, in Cambridge, Mass., at the time of last years attack. "If someone is smart and dedicated, they can find a way in." Web managers at the other attacked sites declined requests for interviews for this story. But experts point out that, typically, the weak link for sites is more human than technological.

While virtually all corporate networks employ some kind of firewall, few home users take such precautions, making them easy prey for hackers looking for machines from which to launch their attacks. At the other end of the line, experts say network administrators take too many chances and are inviting trouble by leaving open unnecessary ports on their networks, among other things.

In fact, it would not take much to repeat the damage of last years attacks, said Bruce Schneier, chief technology officer of Counterpane Internet Security Inc., in San Jose, Calif. Schneier said that the real problem is the number of administrators who rely on software and dont see the need for constant, proactive network monitoring.

"This is a problem, and it always will be," he said. "These people have a false sense of security with all of this software they have, so they dont keep an eye on things the way they should. You get security through detection and response, not by building bigger and bigger walls."

In addition, many sites consider internal security to be a priority. "To be honest, we know were vulnerable, but we worry more about people opening e-mail viruses and things like that than we do about [DDoS attacks]," said a network administrator at Viacom Inc., in New York, who requested anonymity. "We dont get a lot of revenue from the Web sites, so its more of a problem if our internal network is shut down."

Hackers count on that lack of vigilance by administrators, knowing their attack will be well under way before its detected. They also know that administrators have no way to share information with one another in a crisis.

To help remedy that situation, the U.S. Department of Commerce and 19 high-tech companies last week established the Information Technology- Information Sharing and Analysis Center. The center is designed to enable industry leaders and the government to share resources and information before, during and after catastrophic hacks.

Can anything else be done? A Seattle startup has what it thinks is one answer. Asta Networks Inc. will unveil later this year software that monitors a network for specific traffic signatures indicative of a DDoS attack.